Brief Encounter – a return ticket to Temptation

Don’t be put off by its reputation as a classic, David Lean’s 70-year-old Brief Encounter is proper grit-in-the-eye cinema even today… whether you’ve got servants at home or not.

Vic Pratt

Brief Encounter (1945) original poster

Credit: BFI Special Collections

I must confess that the first time I got to see Brief Encounter, David Lean’s perennially popular tale of love, longing and Great British reserve, originally released in 1945 and based on Noël Coward’s 1936 play Still Life, it was with a touch of trepidation. I wondered just how far I’d be able to relate to the characters.

After all, it does revolve around a couple of exceedingly well-to-do protagonists – not only of the kind who don’t give in to romantic temptation, but also of the kind who consider it quite normal to have servants. These are people who call home not to warn their other halves that they’ll be late for dinner, but rather to ask their other halves to tell cook not to wait to serve dinner. And what’s more, the chirpy working-class types who serve them are in awe of regulations, tug their forelocks respectfully and know their place.

Yet despite all this, when I saw it, I quickly found myself well and truly wrapped up in it all, deeply affected by the aching anguish of the near-affair on which the narrative centres, and realising that this is a film that deserves the plaudits piled so plentifully upon it over the decades.

Brief Encounter (1945)

I expect you know the story already. Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard), two smart married suburbanites muddling towards middle age, meet in a station waiting room one day. They fall in love thanks to an unexpectedly intimate incident involving a grain of errant grit removed from Laura’s eye with Alec’s well-laundered hankie, and go on to spend a few torrid but touchingly chaste afternoons in town and country together, dashing back to catch their respective trains of an evening. Eventually, the guilt of near-dalliance becomes too much, and they break it off, returning to the staid but secure world of their marriages. The romance is recalled in flashback, as Laura inwardly mulls over her almost-fling, while her dull but loving husband Fred (Cyril Raymond) does his crossword as usual.

Nothing big or grand happens. It’s a beautifully small story. It could happen to anybody. That might be why it’s so brilliant. Luckily, the social class of the characters doesn’t really matter. Nor does their age, or gender. This is a universally appealing story for lovers of all orientations, and one that perhaps had special resonance at the time for a gay community for whom intimacy was not only forbidden, but also illegal.

That soaring rush of new romance will always be something everybody can relate to; and this is a film that succinctly captures the special shared excitement in everyday things that it brings – that sudden moment of connection with somebody else when the mundane becomes remarkable. The chemistry between Laura and Alec is undeniable. Yet this film also celebrates the value and warmth of established, enduring love, the kind that remains after that initial thrill has dwindled. Laura and Fred’s love may be dulled by time, might require more work, but it’s just as worthwhile; exceptional in its own way, even if it’s sometimes harder to appreciate.

And, regardless of social propriety, Laura’s experiences demonstrate that it’s possible to be in love with two people in two very different ways at once. Timeless and tantalising, Brief Encounter will forever offer a return ticket to a station named Temptation. The viewer is swept along for the ride as Laura steams dangerously close to infidelity, but can still puff out a big a sigh of relief (or even exasperation?) when she safely goes back to familiar Fred.

Brief Encounter (1945)

I’d say there are a few uncomfortable moments for modern viewers. You might flinch slightly when our heroes sneer superciliously at a restaurant cello player; and personally I was somewhat dismayed by Laura and Alec’s dismissive attitude towards the kind of ‘lowbrow’ cinema I love, as summed up in their disdain for matinee masterpiece ‘Flames of Passion’. I’m prepared to concede, however, that the artificial grandeur of what they see on screen neatly throws their own romance into relief.

In the main, though, the script remains pretty spot on; and while social mores may have changed, much of what they say still somehow rings true. Their words, and Johnson and Howard’s splendid performances, remain pertinent and poignant today, outside of time, place, social station, or train station. Still summed up in their brief weekday-afternoon relationship is all the transient effervescence of a fantastic but fleeting love, curtailed by the realisation that you remain committed to somebody else. As Laura telepathically tells us the story she can never tell her husband, the dichotomy between her external life as a married mother and her internal romantic fantasy is brilliantly made vivid. It’s an evergreen story.

Watch the trailer for Brief Encounter

And while you may not share Laura’s taste in millinery, or her penchant for slightly severe shoes, there’s something in the anguished look in her eyes that will chime with anybody who’s ever loved, lost, or been tested by temptation. There’s also the sense that while for the purposes of this story, we’ve focused on Laura and Alec, the surrounding characters too have their own private worlds and secret dramas of their own. Fred certainly isn’t as daft as Laura might think he is, and that station surely provides the locale for numerous other romantic liaisons, too.      

I’m glad that I can believe the hype about Brief Encounter. It really is a great British film love story, still deeply moving though the world it depicts is very different from ours. Best of all, its greatness is not that born of grand spectacle, or cinematic bombast. Hauntingly minimal, Brief Encounter is a story told through tiny gestures, train timetables, and thoroughly mundane everyday activities made marvellous. In this tender tale of the smallest, most beautiful things, the fleeting touch of a lover’s hand means more than the most passionate kiss.

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